I sat on the stairs of some unnamed restaurant on a random corner in NYC, waiting for the clock to wind down, minutes ticking by while I counted them off, silently waiting until I could go into the meeting that I was a twenty minutes or so early for. It isn’t that I have an issue being early. It was more that I didn’t want to be too early. I wasn’t too concerned. The extra down time gave me the chance to do something that I don’t often find the time for.
I am a people watcher. I enjoy watching their mannerisms, their facial expressions, the clothes they’re wearing and the items they carry in their hands. The hustle and bustle of NYC gave this small town girl the chance to watch in spades and in truth…that watching also broke my heart just a tiny bit. You see, in the rat race that is just about any intersection of NYC, what I saw, gave me the chance to see that we as a society have a huge problem that for the most part, we are completely content to ignore.
She came from across the street. In her mid-twenties, her jet black hair was tied into a ponytail, her bangs clipped to the side by a barrette or clip that I couldn’t make out the design for. She was well dressed, but not in a corporate sort of way. More so that she had dressed simply for comfort than to really wow and impress. She carried a backpack with an NYU badge clearly tucked into the top mesh pocket of it. She was clean and had I passed her anywhere else on the street, I wouldn’t have thought twice about her, I wouldn’t have feared her, I wouldn’t have even noticed her to be honest. She blended well.
The Nameless, The Invisible and the Homeless
They stood on the stairs above me and to my left. He was well dressed in business attire and so was she. He embraced her when she walked up to him and they spoke for a few minutes before they too took a seat on the stairs and proceeded to speak softly to each other for a few more minutes before his phone rang. He answered the call and spoke for a few minutes. They stood and when he finished his call they went back to talking.
She approached the stairs quietly with her head down as if she were ashamed to even look at other people passing on the street. I’m fairly certain she looked right past me as I was sitting on the lower part of the stairs, trying my hardest to blend into the stone wall that framed them. She spoke to the couple at the top of the stairs. She was well spoken, incredibly respectful and very soft spoken when she addressed him.
“Excuse me Sir. I know that you have probably been asked this before, but would you happen to have $2.00 to spare? I apparently dropped part of my bus fare and I need to get home.”
Now I realize that people in NYC (and other cities around the country) are often bombarded with requests for money from panhandlers. I totally get not wanting to help someone who appears out of nowhere asking for your hard earned money. I admitted that here in my post 5 things a once homeless mom wants you to know. I also have been on the other side of the equation so I know how embarrassing it is to have people look at you like you’re the scourge of the earth simply because your situation is a bit different. What I don’t get? This:
They didn’t even acknowledge her.
In fact? They looked right through her, looked anywhere else but at her as she stood there waiting for him to even tell her no. Instead, he chose to pretend she didn’t exist for those 30 seconds or so.
She spotted me and asked the same question in that exact same respectful manner and in that moment I could have easily done the same thing that he had done. I could have turned my eyes away to watch the horse drawn carriage being pulled down the street. I could have looked at my phone and decided that 16 minutes early was the perfect time to go into my meeting. I could have just pretended she wasn’t there…
I spoke softly to her telling her that I was sorry, but that I didn’t have any cash on me. It wasn’t a lie. I don’t carry much cash when I’m on a trip.
She could have gotten upset. She could have let it get to her, could have ranted and raved and I suppose she could have gotten angry enough to try and fight about it. We’ve all seen that happen. What she actually did though surprised me more on that trip than anything else I saw or heard.
Crazy, right? Not so when you realize that just seconds before she had been completely dehumanized into something or someone that simply didn’t exist. Having been on her side of things before, I am well aware that her thanks to me was for one reason and one reason only.
I saw her.
Yes, she could have been lying. Yes, she could have been trying to get money for drugs or drink. Yes, she could have made a habit of bumming money off of strangers on the street. None of that matters though.
No matter what she does. No matter who she is….at the end of the day?
She is human the same as you and I are.
They all are. Did you know that on any given night here in the US that there are around 200,000 kids living and surviving on the streets? They come from all walks of life, from different backgrounds and each one has their own story. Even more sobering? Homeless children are extremely hard to track meaning that the 200,000 number? Could be very low and in fact, the number could be as high as a half a million children.
I know, you’re not like them right? I tried to dispel that when I posted homeless statistics a year ago, but I’m guessing that I probably didn’t. Try these on for size; 44% of them once thought the same thing. 44% of them are just like you. They get up in the morning and go work at a job that doesn’t provide the support they need. 44% of them don’t get to go home like you do though. They go back to their car, to the building they’re squatting in, to the shelter or the bridge they currently call home.
Almost 50,000 of the nation’s homeless were veterans in 2014. 50,000 men and women who laid their life on the line. 50,000 men and woman who returned from whatever their service required of them and are now sleeping on the streets.
Our first instinct is to ignore them. It is too hard to look at them…to realize that we could someday find ourselves in the same situation. Nothing in life is guaranteed and I can just about bet that an overwhelming majority of them never expected to find themselves where they are. Ignoring them though isn’t going to make the problem go away. Pretending they don’t exist and keeping them as an invisible subset of society isn’t going to fix things. Getting angry and disgusted by the homeless only serves to make things worse.
Instead? Recognize them for what they are.
They are the invisible members of our society, but they are human beings.
Human beings that are down on their luck.
Human beings who need your help.
Human beings that sometimes really only want someone to really see them.
To that nameless, invisible girl on that random NYC street. I saw you.